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November 2010

chickens

How to not suck at chickens chapter 2: Plan the run

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Prepare the battleground: The run

Your first step to starting off right is actually to forget that you’re getting chickens. It’s tempting, once you decide to do it, to go look at hatchery catalogs and decide on breeds and even make your order.

However, the right way to do it is first to imagine creating a zoo cage that will hold – at the same time – something that can climb infinite heights, something that can fly, something with the strength of an average human, something that can fit through an inch of space, and something totally unafraid of humans.

Think of it like caging the Wonder Twins – or, to put real names on it – a coydorachaweafox.

The huge problem with chickens is that they’re like the microwave popcorn of the cubicle office of the predator world. They’re fast, they’re easy, and the smell of them brings hungry moochers from all over the place.

If you’re living in a downtown area with nary a blade of grass or tree for miles, happily confident of the fact that you don’t have to worry about predators, STOP RIGHT NOW. The first week your chickens are out in their run you’ll discover that you’ve been living with a veritable horde.

Your top predators in most areas are going to be:

1)    Dogs. Yours and your neighbors’. They don’t climb too well but they dig amazingly well. They also kill for the fun of it, so if they can get in they’ll keep going until anything that moves is dead. Mentally build a kennel that cannot be dug under (this will keep out coyotes as well).

2)    Raccoons. They are too big to fit through small spaces, but their hands are not. We lost a half-grown chick the very first night we had them out, in what I thought was Fort Knox, because a raccoon reached through the wire and grabbed a leg. Half the chicken was left behind. Not pretty. Raccoons are extremely – freakishly – strong and they can undo latches and pry up staples. Mentally build something entirely held together by screws and with a sizeable area made of wood or metal where the chickens can run and hide and not be grabbed through.

3)    Hawks and owls. They will come from the sky and they like lone, vulnerable animals with no cover to get under. Mentally build something with a strong and closely spaced roof or covering of some kind.

4)    Fox. The best diggers. They can get under and into anything in a very short amount of time. Urban foxes will hunt during the day, too.

5)    Weasels (and their relatives – fishers and skunks and others). Don’t climb too well, don’t fly, but tunnel like crazy and can fit through anything that’s over an inch in diameter. What they don’t fit through they chew through. Mentally build something with only tiny holes, and make sure the wire is heavy..

So… that cute little run made of chicken wire? That only costs $15 for a huge roll? Forget it. Chicken wire is basically useless except to keep chickens out of something. Fence off your garden with it if you’d like, or use it to create internal dividers in your coop if you would like to keep separate breeds. Do NOT use it as any kind of an external barrier that separates your birds from the big bad world.

What you want to use instead is a combination of welded wire or chain link (for strength) and hardware cloth (for tiny holes). Every inch of exposure up to about waist height must either be wood (or thick plastic or metal) or BOTH heavy wire and hardware cloth. Above that you can usually leave off the hardware cloth, but you still need a barrier to deter the climbers.

Diggers are stopped by one of two options: burying a couple feet of closely spaced welded wire or aluminum below the fence, or creating a skirt of welded wire that extends a couple of feet out from your fence.

OK – that’s the run. Just the run. Not the actual coop! You should be getting the impression that this has stopped being a $50 run to Home Depot quite a while ago. Building it right is not easy or cheap.

I am sure that right now a bunch of people are saying “Look, I kept chickens in an upturned orange crate for twenty years!” or “My neighbors have their layers in a run made of a piece of sheet attached to a rotten tree and they’re fine!” And they’re right. Lots and lots of people keep chickens like that. But I can guarantee you that they either lose a bunch to predators every year or they have a good outside-only farm dog.

When I was growing up, we had chickens in a cute little coop with an open-topped run. We lost very few except when a broody hen would decide to hide out in the woods and get picked off. We also had a German Shepherd with free run of the place (this was in the days before leash laws), and she never came inside. Her ears got sliced by raccoons and foxes before she was full-grown, but the chickens were safe. For twelve years she patrolled; the year she died we lost almost every chicken.

So yes, a good dog can save you. But most people don’t – and don’t want to – live that way anymore. Really reliable dogs are few and far between and neighbors don’t like the nighttime barking even when the dogs are good ones. In order to be a good neighbor you need to be able to batten down the hatches and appear as though you don’t exist by about ten at night, which gives predators free rein through most of the hours of the dark.

So now that you’re looking gloomily through the home center website and wincing at prices, plan on enclosing about ten square feet per chicken if they’re going to be spending most of their time in it. In other words, if you want nine hens and a rooster, a ten-by-ten area will work very well. You can get away with a little less per bird if you can offer them free range time each day, but trying to squish them together for any length of time is asking for them to get bored and cannibalistic.

If I can give you a bit of hope, especially if (like us) you are long on enthusiasm and short on money, one of the very best runs can be had for almost nothing if you look around.

My craigslist is almost always full of dog kennels. People buy them, use them a while, get rid of the dog or the dog goes to heaven, and they’re left with the kennel. The going price around here is about a hundred bucks for a ten-by-ten size in really good condition. Dog kennels make absolutely fantastic chicken runs. They’re the right size for a family flock, they’re strong, they look nice, and if you run hardware cloth around the bottom and hang deer netting over the top they’re pretty near impenetrable.

Next: What to put inside the run: Coops!

To give you some sneak-peek ideas, you can look at Backyard Chicken’s coop gallery. It’s a little intimidating, if you don’t feel like spending ten grand on a chicken coop, but there’s no better place to see a ton of people solving the same problems in different ways.

chickens

How to not suck at chickens: Chapter 1

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CHAPTER ONE: INTRODUCTION

Know what you want

The first step is to figure out what your ideal result is. When you close your eyes and imagine what it’ll be like to have your lovely group of family chickens, what are you picturing?

And, more important, is it realistic?

Eggs

Realistic: You can have a steady supply of incredibly delicious eggs, eggs that will make you wonder how anyone can eat store-bought. These will be eggs you will literally run over and show the neighbors, and suddenly family gatherings will prominently feature quiche, breakfast casserole, pound cakes, and omelets.

You can be absolutely sure that the eggs you and your family eat are clean, fresh, and (probably) disease-free.

Bursting your bubble: You’ll pay about $10 a dozen for them (if you have to build a coop from scratch you can bump this to somewhere between a scream and a stifled sob per dozen), and you’ll have a steady part-time job gathering them, managing angry hens, soul-searching about the fate of roosters, and making sure they stay as clean and fresh as when they were laid.

You also may not avoid the danger of salmonella, since a few hens carry it in their ovaries and lay eggs with the bacteria already inside (and those chicks grow up with the same problem, etc.). The way you avoid this is by NOT getting birds from auctions or flea markets or similar. It’s really smart to start off with NPIP/salmonella-tested hatcheries and breeders, which we’ll talk about later.

Meat

Realistic: You can fill your freezer with the freshest meat there is, and you can be sure your meat was raised in a humane and appropriate way. Home-raised heritage-breed meat has a fuller, more complex flavor and is a dark-meat-lover’s dream.

Bursting your bubble: You will pay substantially more than grocery prices per pound, and if you were planning on selling extras to make up your investment you’d better have a group of people willing to pay through the nose for it.

You will also wrestle with the short-term issues of butchering and cleaning, and the longer-term issues of sustainable production and ethical raising. We’ll go into that more in another chapter, but there are not easy answers.

Fun

Realistic: Chickens are hilarious, just about every second of every day. They have an endearing mix of instinct and a tiny glimmer of personality, and many breeds exist purely as eye candy.

Bursting your bubble: That tiny glimmer of personality hides what’s basically a lizard with feathers. Chickens can be shockingly cruel to each other – henpecked is not an accidental adjective, and if they decide that one in the flock is vulnerable they will kill and even eat her in a matter of hours. Roosters don’t know when to call it quits and can damage or kill a “favorite” hen.

Even if you manage to avoid chicken-on-chicken violence or the rape and pillage of the boys, you will almost certainly have to deal with injury, death, parasites that make you shudder, and an unconscionable amount of poop.

Give kids the experience

Realistic: I’ve never much believed that dogs teach kids responsibility – they require too much of a relationship to fit that role well. But chickens – heck yes. Actually, it’s not so much “responsibility” as “I don’t care how far along you are on the Poptropica island, you have living things that take precedence and need you.” It’s a focus away from self and on to hard work and a good amount of honest dirty labor. Since chickens don’t need a relationship, but do need quite a bit of shoveling and fetching and carrying, they can give kids a bit of much-needed work.

Bursting your bubble: Kids will also get a view into death that you may not be ready for. Chickens are fragile and they don’t help themselves to stay alive very well. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t had at least one major predator-related loss (which usually means coming in to find half your flock slaughtered and several other major injuries) and chicks seem to want to throw themselves off the metaphorical cliff to their doom. Chicks drown in their water dishes, they try to jump off things and die, they croak from infections and digestive problems, they can be born deformed… it’s not Mary Poppins. I personally think it’s great for kids to experience the reality of life and death, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t rocked kids who were stormily weeping for hours over the death of a favorite bird.

Environmental

Realistic: You can be part of the movement away from factory production of eggs and meat. Because your flock will be small and well cared for, it will be less likely to need pesticides and other chemical intervention. If you plan well, your poultry can do wonders for your garden and give back to your lawn and trees as well.

Bursting your bubble: It’s been my experience that all too often owners buy into the “if a little is good, a lot is better” mindset and absolutely inundate their animals with chemicals. I’ve got news for you – if you’re dosing with ivermectin every three months and creating dust baths with Sevin insecticide and lashing coccidiostat all over the place, you’re actually creating foodstuffs that are MORE contaminated than the store would sell you. At least the commercial poultry houses have somebody saying “Wow, enough!”

It’ll be your responsibility to know enough about the various medications and interventions to find a balance between keeping your flock healthy and keeping your food and your kids uncontaminated. We’ll go over common interventions later.

Saving money

I’m just going to burst your bubble on this immediately. Store-bought eggs and chicken meat are cheaper than you’re ever going to get in your own backyard. Once you count the cost of housing, medicating, raising them to laying or butchering age, and the feed you’ll be buying in little high-priced sacks instead of by the ton like the big guys do, there’s not any hope for you.

However, having your own chickens can get you through brief periods of poverty and can work some real miracles when you desperately need it. Yes, you had to pay $15 for food last week, but when you’re down to your last two bucks this week it feels like manna from heaven to have a big fat casserole to put on the table thanks to your hens.

Next: How to start right

General

For real, chicken people are crazy

Since we’ve thrown ourselves into our little barn project, with a dozen pretty blue eggs in the incubator and eight-week-olds outside, I’ve been doing a lot of research on the latest way to raise chickens and the best way to keep and breed them.

And holy samoleon, chicken breeders make dog breeders look measured, steady, and conservative.

Some of my surprise has an ethical edge to it – there’s no inkling of “it’s wrong to breed chickens with X,” so there are all kinds of lethal this and no-top-of-the-skull that, and bizarre and harmful mutations all over the place. Inbreeding – as in “I started with a brother and sister twenty years ago and have never brought in anything else, ever” is actually considered the RIGHT way to breed, despite the fact that everybody knows what it does. They are completely fine with most of the eggs dying, or tons of leg malformations, or strange digestive issues, as long as the line is pure. And here I don’t mean “breed,” I mean literally LINE. That one inbred pairing many years ago. I know there are some dog breeders who will accept a high level of inbreeding, but they at least acknowledge that routine litters where 90% of the puppies die might be a problem. Chicken people? Nope, happy to get that 10% and would never dream of bringing in anything else.

A lot of what makes me feel crazed, though, is husbandry. I don’t need chickens to have a shangri-la coop, though it sure would be nice to know that they’re not walking in ten inches of their own feces (which, based on a lot of pictures, is a point of pride for some breeders). But, honey, please – do some research. I’ve read about fifty recommendations now to dose chickens with injectable ivermectin in their water. Injectable ivermectin DOESN’T DISSOLVE IN WATER. About thirty more to use Eprinex – cattle pour-on – because there’s no egg withdrawal time and you can sell and eat the eggs after medicating. As far as I know that is complete fantasy; there aren’t even published dosages of eprinomectin for chickens, much less a withdrawal time. People using pounds of full-strength Sevin dust to create dust baths for their chickens to kill mites, and then selling the eggs later. People “curing” major infections with vaseline and then wondering why the bird died.

Is anyone interested in me writing up a short “best practices” ebook for family chickens? I’m not talking about big-time production, just about how to start with chickens, what kind of decisions you need to make, how to not kill your little hens in the backyard, and how to NOT dose your family or your neighbors with pesticides while doing it. If there’s nobody reading who has or is interested in chickens, I won’t do it, but since I’m kind of at a standstill with the dogs, no puppies in sight and the show season over for the winter, I’m actually doing more thinking and reading about birds than dogs right now. If it would help anyone, let me know and I’ll start releasing little chapters as I can.

Family, General

I tried to get some pictures of Agatha in the colorful fall…

I tried to get some pictures of Agatha in the colorful fall leaves (as pitiful as they are in Texas) for her 10 month birthday, but this was the only shot where she was distracted enough to look up from her acorn hunting.Shes still very small and seems to have stalled out at around 15 or 16 pounds.  Do they tend to grow in spurts?  I keep watching for a growth spurt but havent seen one in a while.Shes still as goofy and fun as ever.

I tried to get some pictures of Agatha in the colorful fall leaves (as pitiful as they are in Texas) for her 10 month birthday, but this was the only shot where she was distracted enough to look up from her acorn hunting.

She’s still very small and seems to have stalled out at around 15 or 16 pounds.  Do they tend to grow in spurts?  I keep watching for a growth spurt but haven’t seen one in a while.

She’s still as goofy and fun as ever.

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Family, General

Long time no see

I figured I should take the jello out of my mouth long enough to post, though unfortunately I am still not up to speed. A couple of weeks ago I had a major “Oh my goodness, I can’t breathe. What happens when you can’t breathe? Something bad, I bet!” reaction to something in the house. Our best guess right now is some kind of mold, probably left from the damage done by the fire or the putting out thereof. Nobody else in the family is reacting, so it’s not something universally bad like black mold – I’ve had odd lung things happen before with common mildews, so I’m blaming that, but I haven’t had it this bad in a decade. We’re dehumidifying the basement and I am on prednisone, but I am still pretty sick. I will try to say hi more often but I don’t dare to promise long posts yet.

Hope to be back to as normal as things ever get around here pretty soon.